In recent years we have seen a massive surge in the amount of data travelling through traditional telecom networks. This growth in data traffic is being fuelled by the uptake of new technologies like internet of things (IoT), artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML), cloud and blockchain. Growing video consumption has added to the data surge. In addition to this, consumers’ demand for greater speeds and a smooth experience across interfaces is increasing. Better network speed is, in fact, one of the key promises of 5G. As India gears up for the launch of 5G services, the volume of data traffic is expected to increase further. In order to deliver the kind of capacity that a 5G network would require, it is necessary that operators deploy fibre across their tower sites.

A look at why tower fiberisation is gaining importance, the key challenges faced while deploying fibre and the way forward…

Tower fiberisation

Given the current surge in data traffic, which is expected to go up even further with the launch of 5G services, industry stakeholders in the telecom sector are increasingly realising the need to improve the capacity of the existing networks. While the current capacity per tower site is about 1 Gbps for 2G/3G/4G services, going forward, the capacity needed for each site will increase to 10-20 Gbps, once 5G kicks in. This also needs a fundamental change in the technology deployed at these tower sites. Traditional microwave can only provide speeds of 500 Mbps-1 Gbps. E-band microwave can provide 1-2.5 Gbps of speed depending on the allocation of the number of spots. In order to achieve capacities of 10-20 Gbps, there is a need to deploy fibre across all the tower sites.

At present, India has around 0.5 million tower sites, of which only 0.1 million are fiberised, accounting for only 20-22 per cent of the total. For 4G network alone, there is a need to fiberise 35-40 per cent of the tower sites. The need for tower fiberisation is becoming even more apparent with the move towards technologies like AI, IoT, ML and cloud.

As per industry reports, the site count for 5G networks will double from the current 0.5 million to around 1 million by 2022. The new sites will require network densification, including the deployment of small cells and increased fiberisation of tower sites.

Key challenges

In order to make 5G a reality, the proportion of fiberised sites will have to be taken up to 50 per cent. However, the road to reaching this target is fraught with several challenges. One of the primary challenges is the non-uniform implementation of the Right of Way (RoW) Rules 2016 across the states. At present, only 13 states have aligned their tower policies with the RoW rules issued by the Department of Telecommunications. Non-implementation of the RoW rules has created several hurdles as far as fibre deployment across tower sites is concerned. RoW still remains the biggest cost component for tower operators. Delays in getting the necessary permissions in places where the policies are not aligned with the RoW rules further escalate the overall cost of the project. Moreover, fibre costs have been increasing, adding significantly to operators’ capex burden. In view of these rising costs, it is imperative that operators opt for a sharing approach as far as infrastructure planning and utilisation are concerned. Shared planning of routes for fibre roll-out will save duplication costs. In addition, service’ costs need to be further optimised.

Growth path

Conventionally, individual service providers have been fiberising their own tower sites and sourcing fibre from their respective independent operations and maintenance providers. This approach may not prove very efficient in the coming times as the need for more fiberised sites increases. In such a scenario, limited or negligible sharing of fibre will prove to be futile. To this end, operators need to adopt new models where sharing is the key. Operators can go for rental models for the last mile wherein independent companies can build and operate the last-mile network and then allow other operators to use their network on a rent-paying basis. Sharing of last-mile infrastructure will considerably benefit towercos in terms of reducing their capex and opex. Apart from this, towercos can foray into various other business segments such as smart cities, which are fast emerging as key consumers of fibre.

Future outlook

Fibre is set to become the backbone of the telecom sector in India. This is the right time to increase the fiberisation of sites across the country as 4G is still getting deployed and 5G is on the horizon. Towercos can play a valuable role in bridging the gap between 4G and 5G by deploying more fibre, as they are uniquely positioned to serve as neutral hosts. Going forward, one of the key priorities for the industry will be to double the fibre routes across the country. s

Based on a presentation by Alka Selot Asthana, Chief Technology Officer, Bharti Infratel